ICAN Changes a Nation One Person at a Time
- The Caribbean, Eastern Caribbean
- Personal Essay
ICAN, short for I Can Change a Nation, is a newly formed youth movement in Soufriere, St. Lucia. Born out of a youth summer enrichment program in 2008, the group's mission is "positive youth leading the way for positive change, by fostering positive vibes." ICAN is not just another youth organization; members between the ages of nine and thirty-five see themselves as part of a movement to change themselves, their community, and their nation, one person at a time. They are a composite of primary (ICAN2), secondary and tertiary students (ICAN), and adults (Friends of ICAN)—all willing to nurture, mentor, and develop the capacity for civic involvement, leadership, and individual talents.
Drawing on skills learned from training workshops, informal consultations, and observations—ICAN noted several important areas that they could contribute towards making Soufriere a stronger and more cohesive community. Among the areas of need in Soufriere and of interest to the group were: establishing a youth-friendly space, protecting the environment, conducting neighborhood clean-ups, and assisting individuals who find themselves "in need of a helping hand."
The youth group, concerned with the plight of disenfranchised adults who live or spend whole days on the stoops of buildings, who may beg for change from pedestrians, and are in tattered clothing, decided to organize a clothing, food, and toiletries drive. Many of Soufriere's indigent also struggle with mental illness, which leads to further alienation from mainstream society. "Vagrant," "zombie," and "lunatic" are common terms used to identify these members of our community. So, in collaboration with several community organizations including a national youth advocacy network, the soup kitchen, the local development foundation, and the mental health outreach clinic, ICAN set out to achieve the following goals for GYSD:
- Goal 1: Soufriere will be a community where everyone feels welcome and appreciated, and
- Goal 2: There will be no hunger or hungry people in Soufriere.
While the goals remain lofty, the ICAN team is committed to working towards these goals over time—well beyond Global Youth Service Day (GYSD). The group has worked diligently on putting together all aspects of a GYSD project. Weekly meetings were spent learning about and immediately applying necessary skills to organize and implement our project. Our sessions included developing SMART objectives, steps in project design, basic project terminology, writing an action plan, role delegation, proposal writing, and public relations. Each of the 15 youth participating in GYSD has spent nearly 30 training and teamwork hours in seeing this project through.
The SMART objectives are coupled with tasks that include preparation of a nutritious meal at the soup kitchen; sorting and distribution of clothing; collection of toiletry packs to be given out at the community bathroom facility; authoring an informal community survey related to the perceptions, stigma, and discrimination of homeless individuals; and finally, developing a public information campaign to help transform often fearful attitudes held by the larger community towards the indigent.
There are two aspects of this project that create the potential for sustainability. First, the group is focused on volunteering and then applying their new skills, knowledge, and attitude towards the development of a community change campaign. The project integrates service and advocacy in hopes of offering help for the day-to-day needs, as well as changing the way people treat other people. The campaign will be geared towards youth, parents, and teachers, as well as community-based organizations, government, and non-government leaders. Pamphlets, posters, and leaflets will offer facts about mental illness, buttressed by anecdotes gathered by the team during our exchanges with clients at the soup kitchen. The youth are also in the initial stages of developing a perceptions questionnaire that will help highlight where the community's attitudes rest. This data will help ICAN and its partnering organizations prepare presentations that address these issues to the broader community.
The second aspect of this project that promotes sustainability is the commitment of ICAN's members. The attitude is not "one and done," but rather focuses on how the group can instill a new vision of community. The members want to do so by being role models to their peers and to the elders in the community. Beginning with themselves, the members believe they can impress upon others the inherent value of every person in the community. In Soufriere, we struggle with buy-in and equal participation among boys and girls. At the start of this project, our core GYSD planners were eight youth. In just two months time we've grown to 15 with almost equal participation between genders. I believe the growing interest, curiosity, and participation is evidence of the movement taking root in Soufriere. These committed, talented, and inspired young people are ambassadors for change.
This is an experiential learning environment for intensely motivated youth who get to see results almost immediately. We worked hard on writing a press release, practicing public interviews, and telling their story to anyone who would listen. The project garnered radio, television, and print media attention. Their work led to the collection of 250 pounds of shoes, clothing, linens, and towel donations; the creation of 60 toiletry packages; almost $700 EC ($260 US) worth of new monetary contributions; and the preparation of one warm nutritious meal for 25 clients of the soup kitchen. The materials collected were distributed to 50 children, women, and men.
The training modules and steps are clearly defined and easily transferable to all types of projects. We've integrated culturally and age appropriate examples and terminology. I believe we're developing a cadre of youth who can take this experience and apply it to new projects that ICAN adopts. This has been one of my most rewarding experiences as a volunteer because I felt invited to be a part of the evolution, if not revolution, that the youth wanted for themselves and for their community. I know that ICAN is changing the nation, one person and one community at a time.